Sunday, April 15, 2018 @ 3 PM
Brahms clarinet quintet
Puck Quartet & Sebastian Lambertz, clarinet
Notes on the program
Does it surprise you to know that Brahms loved old music, very old music? He was a star participant in the Bach revival and worked on the fine complete editions of Handel and Bach that were to illuminate the full universe of genius of these composers. We know Brahms was charged with composing the continuo (keyboard) realizations for many of Handel’s works and he did them with a meticulousness that could only come from his uncompromising mind. He loved Baroque forms. The last movement of his forth symphony is a passacaglia. But his involvement with old music does not stop with the great late Baroque masters who inaugurated a history of German musical dominance that would hold power for over a century. (Brahms is a mountain peak in this history.) Brahms also loved the very French François Couperin. His was as co editor of the first important modern edition of the French harpsichordist’s four books of exquisite and mostly unknown keyboard music. Brahms knew so much.
However, Haydn was not old music to Brahms and his own compositions are directly descended from the quartets and symphonies that argued successfully for abstract music as the highest form of composition. In each work of Brahms, whether an intermezzo or a concerto for piano, there is a narrative of ideas enriched by a complicated mind and tortured heart. Haydn’s sunny and endlessly optimistic personality, born of the enlightenment, tells a different story but very much in the same way.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4
Allegro di molto
Un poco adagio e affettuoso
Menuet alla Zingarese
Presto e scherzando
The Quartets of opus 20 present Haydn as the greatest voice in music of his generation and of later 18th century Europe. In earlier works, keyboard trios, symphonies, and keyboard sonatas there are signs of a transcendent talent. He turns an adagio melody as beautifully as any Italian opera composer. He shapes the motion of each movement with a sense of accumulating energy that keeps us engaged. He can be austere or voluptuous. But we aren’t yet sure that he will speed ahead of Wagenseil or Schobert. Opus 20 leaves no doubt. “Hats off, a genius.”
Haydn loved old music and when we think of Opus 20 we think of the extended fugues of this collection of quartets. We need to remember that unlike Mozart, Haydn was formed by the values of the late Baroque. He studied with Porpora, Handel’s great rival in London, and he learned the rules of counterpoint. For Mozart, the fugue was a return to earlier compositional values but for Haydn, they were the roots; they were his formation. The skills so evident in his fugues are also apparent in all his movements, from sonata form to variation to minuet and trio to Rondo. He easily moves from textures of quartet equality to two parts with instruments playing in octaves, to arias in which the violin becomes a diva and the remaining three players are the opera orchestra. And through it all, we have the impression that Haydn has something he wants to tell us, and he tells us with musical materials, in the most engaging way.
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)
Golijov loves old music. His Tenebrae makes reference to the lamentations of Jeremiah sung or recited during holy week. These are cries from the darkness in which separation from God brings despair and alienation. Jerusalem and the people of the bible have become lost in their ways and Jeremiah speaks of the degradation and implores humanity (Jerusalem) to return to the ways of God.
For those who believe that new music is poor in physical or sensuous beauty, Golijov is your composer with a gift for vocal beauty and a talent to pull the most seductive sounds from instruments. Here is the composer’s note on this hauntingly beautiful work.
"I wrote Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it "from afar", the music would probably offer a "beautiful" surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops, and wrote new interludes between them, always within a pulsating, vibrating, aerial texture. The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground. After finishing the composition, I realized that Tenebrae could be heard as the slow, quiet reading of an illuminated medieval manuscript in which the appearances of the voice singing the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet (from Yod to Nun, as in Couperin) signal the beginning of new chapters, leading to the ending section, built around a single, repeated word: Jerusalem."
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115
Andantino Con Moto
Many years ago I had the honor of attending a performance of the NY Philharmonic presenting a program of Brahms and Elliot Carter. My “date” for the performance was Elliot Carter. He taught composition at Juilliard and was a friend of Aaron Copeland. We had had a lunch together at Copeland’s home and at that lunch he invited me to join him at the concert. After the Brahms Symphony he turned to me and said, “I don’t know why people have such a problem with my music. Brahms is much harder to understand.”
Listening to a late chamber work of Brahms after a Haydn quartet is akin to reading a late James novel after having read Emma or Sense and Sensibility by Austen. The later work owes so much to the earlier one. The earlier one is luminous, clear, and focused and the later is enriched to the breaking point with every possible influence and artistic choice garnered from a century of repertory. Aside from the overwhelming presence of sonic beauty, of mellifluous expression, you could say that Brahms was a man who knew too much.
What could be more inviting and alluring than the lyrical duet between the two violins that welcome us into this large Quintet. Brahms uses classical forms (sonata, song form, scherzo with trio, and finally variations) but a constant searching mind fills each measure with florid counterpoint and an effort to reach to the farthest horizons of his harmonic language. This is fin de siècle, decadent style, or however you want to categorize it. But finally, it is the richest music in our repertory.
Brahms charges us to listen carefully. He has vetted his music, throwing away one work after another that did not meet his criteria for public hearings, and places before us his selected and prized music. If unlike Haydn, he doesn’t end happily, he will take us on a journey that is a confession of struggle and longing and leave us exhausted yet with more understanding of our own search and heartache.
March 16, 2018 Hillsdale NY
For more notes